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Supervisor chose not to arrest

The deputy who stopped Lt. James Martone was uncomfortable and called for assistance.

By JOHN FRANK
Published January 31, 2007


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INVERNESS - Sheriff's Deputy Richard Briggs was driving north on Old Floral City Road on Jan. 13 when a red Dodge pickup heading south veered into his lane.

He swerved off the road to avoid the collision, then turned around to pursue the truck.

The driver nearly hit a fence before he pulled off the road at 9:46 p.m. near Fort Cooper. His speech was slurred, his eyes were glassy and he reeked of alcohol. The deputy described him as "tore up." Once outside the truck, he clung to the side to stay upright.

If it were a regular traffic stop, Briggs said, the driver would have gotten a night in jail and a ticket for driving under the influence.

But the driver was James Martone, a high-ranking lieutenant and a close friend of Sheriff Jeff Dawsy. So Martone was allowed to call his wife, who brought their 15-year-old son to drive him home.

In a statement, Dawsy said he took "swift and decisive action" Friday when he revoked Martone's badge and gun while demoting him to a civilian child protective investigator.

But the question he wouldn't answer: Why didn't the lieutenant get arrested?

"Officers have that discretion, and they use it all the time," a sheriff's spokeswoman said. She couldn't elaborate on how often that happens.

Even in this case, the deputy would have arrested the driver, but Cpl. Kenneth Amsler, the shift supervisor, made the decision to let Martone go.

Martone issued a statement through the Sheriff's Office saying he accepted responsibility and was "taking the necessary steps to resolve this problem with off-duty alcohol use."

"It was never my intention to discredit the Sheriff's Office or the badge that I wore for 22 years," he said.

His employment records indicate that the traffic stop is the third strike against him.

In 1991, he was a deputy when he was given a written reprimand after leaving a Pizza Hut in Inverness without paying $6.25 for a pitcher of beer he ordered. Martone called the reprimand a "terrible injustice," according to records.

In 1997, he was punished for "conduct that reflects discredit on the Sheriff's Office" when he was pulled over on U.S. 41 by an Inverness police officer for traveling 65 mph in a 45 mph zone. Internal documents show that the Inverness officer detected the odor of alcohol on Martone and had a lieutenant drive him home.

At the time, Martone was banned from taking his sheriff's cruiser home for two weeks and was issued a written reprimand for speeding.

The latest incident came to light Monday after word leaked from the Sheriff's Office about Martone's recent disciplinary action. Authorities revealed more details Tuesday when they released the 54-page internal affairs investigation.

A little lie for cards

Interviews with those involved show some disagreement on the details of the day in question, but they said it started Saturday afternoon with a white lie and a card game.

It was about 3 p.m. when Martone planned with Detective Gary Atchinson to watch the NFL playoffs at Atchinson's place in Inverness.

Martone told his wife, Robin, a "little fib" that he was going to his pal's house to move furniture. He and Atchinson laughed about it as they cleaned the garage to make room for the television and a card table.

After a quick errand to get $100 cash from the bank and a stop to round up some card players - including a bail bondsman and a guy named Buzz - they started dealing. Martone popped the top on one of the Bud Lights he brought.

Six hours and at least a six-pack later, Martone was looking at a pile of money as they played the last hand. He taunted his competitors about how much he won. In rebuttal, they joked about how much trouble he would be in when he arrived home, seeing that he blew off his wife's cell phone calls earlier in the night.

His wife still offered him a ride home, but Martone said he was fine to drive. Atchinson's fiancee, Sandra, typically drives home the ones who drink too much. No ride was offered this time, Atchinson said, because Martone "was not even close to that."

Martone prided himself in recent years on not driving if he drank too much. He knew he was impaired but couldn't guess his blood-alcohol level - something deputies didn't even try to determine later.

"Today's and the things that I have been through in my career, after 22 years, I am not putting myself through it anymore," he said later.

He left and stopped at McDonald's in Inverness after his son called to say that there was no dinner at home. Martone bought a chicken sandwich and a couple of hamburgers. Taking Eden Drive to head south on Old Floral City Road, he finished his first burger and was reaching for the second when he nearly hit Briggs' car.

Superior to the rescue

At the traffic stop, Briggs asked for Martone's driver's license but then quickly recognized him. Martone handed over his badge and sheriff's identification card before realizing that it wasn't his license.

Gently questioning Martone, Briggs didn't see any food bags inside the truck but noticed the half empty 18-pack of Bud Light in the rear bed.

Outside in the night air, Briggs had his superior sit on the tailgate because he was unsteady and swaying back and forth.

Briggs called Amsler, his supervisor, saying he was uncomfortable stopping a "higher-up." Amsler was near Dunnellon but responded as soon as he could. On the way there, he made the decision to let Martone call his wife, who was at home nearby.

When Amsler arrived, he walked up to Martone and shook his hand. Martone thanked him for coming.

"No problem, we're all in this together. We're all looking out for each other ..." Martone recalled Amsler saying.

The next morning, Martone sat in the early service at church thinking that he needed to call Briggs and thank him for what he did.

Even days later in meetings with investigators, Martone reiterated that he wasn't drunk but did get a break from a citation for crossing the double yellow line.

"I appreciate this internal affairs process," he said. "What I don't appreciate about this process is if this gets out, what's going to happen to us as an agency?"

John Frank can be reached at 860-7312 or jfrank@sptimes.com.

[Last modified January 30, 2007, 22:39:11]


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